Being a platformer, Neversong is in a genre full of highly regarded titles: Limbo, Super Meat Boy, Celeste and Hollow Knight, to mention a few. Even so, it manages to stand out with its deliciously dark story, tight controls, and concise but fun gameplay. There are some nitpicks which we’ll get into later, but for now, let’s take a deeper look at what it does well.
You Guys Wanna Go See a Dead Body?
Peet is a young boy and our controllable protagonist, and when we first meet him, he is waking from a coma, which he fell into trying to save his girlfriend, Wren. Immediately, it’s clear that something is not fine in this world — it’s dark, twisted, and haunting. Earlier, we mentioned Hollow Knight; if you sit down with Neversong for any length of time, you can’t help but draw comparisons between the atmospheres of their respective worlds.
As you explore, you find out that all the grown-ups of the village have gone somewhere, leaving the children to fend for themselves. The cast of kooky characters, and the voice actors who bring them life, steal the show: Gomboyssa loves parkour, and he makes sure you know it. Simeon is down-trodden and has problems with expanding gas. Preston is more upbeat and loves science. Each character has a unique personality that often ties into the gameplay — Gomboyssa’s love of parkour, for example, alludes to an ability that you get later on. These are just some examples of a larger ensemble cast of predominantly children that reminds of a deranged version of the film Stand by Me. There’s a sinister naivety at play; it’s deep and makes you think. The sort of story that can only be told by delving into your own psyche.
What do you actually do in Neversong, though? In the search for your childhood sweetheart, you must defeat a handful of bosses to get music sheets, which you then play on a piano to unlock new abilities so you can progress to new areas and get closer to finding Wren. Along the way, you must solve puzzles, fend off enemies, and interact with the world’s creepy characters in order to gain access to the bosses in the first place. The controls are straightforward — jumping and hitting things with a bat being the staples — but you unlock a few new abilities in your journey that allow you to reach new places, such as a skateboard. Sleek and responsive, the controls are well crafted, and they’re never to blame when things go wrong for you.
Although this might sound like a Metroidvania, and it certainly does share a lot of the same attributes, Neversong can be best described as a Metroidvania-lite. The game can be completed in less than five hours, and its level design is nowhere near as complex as other titles in the genre. Now, here is where we stumble into the good-bad nuance. Personally, this complexity is what caused me to bounce off Hollow Knight — its world was simply too complex, and that’s why I consider this to be a positive in Neversong’s favour. There is backtracking and the unlocking of new areas as you gain new abilities, but it’s never overwhelming. However, if you’re looking for something with tens of hours of dungeon crawling, this isn’t it.
The Elephant in the Room
Neversong’s combat is more casual than hardcore Metroidvanias. Enemies have attack patterns, for instance, but they’re never very complex. This includes the bosses, and I found myself breezing through most of the game’s combat until it ramps up right at the end. But whereas as many of its rivals give prominence to combat, Neversong makes it take a backseat to the story. You’re never playing to fight the next boss; you’re playing to find out what happened to Wren and the dystopian world.
Speaking of bosses, most have one or two phases at most. They’re never very tricky, and even the final boss only took me two attempts once I worked out his patterns. You have to hit attack them for a total of five flurries, each one causing them to drop some health and a musical note. At each stage, the boss becomes more and more damaged, and in one case leads to one of the boss’s faces cracking and falling off. The enemies, in general, are of a few different creature/humanoid types, flying bug-things and knife-wielding maniacs to name two. Everything about Neversong is disturbing.
Let’s talk about puzzles. There are a lot of them, and they’re all conducted using the environment. Some require you to turn on four-ish lights by hitting them with your bat, the twist being that each one is on a timer. Manage to do it, however, and you’ll gain access to a new area. Another puzzle type has you cutting down exploding spheres that hang around the environments. The timer starts upon detachment, and you have to blow up clearly marked boxes with them to progress to new areas. This is harder than it sounds, and one such puzzle asks that you shoot the sphere into the air with a platform at just the right moment to blow up some boxes above you that are blocking the way to an objective.
The artwork is beautiful, in a haunting way, of course. Some areas, such as the village and its house interiors, are brighter, but you soon descend into dark and dreary underground scenes, full of dread. And as you navigate the world, you will find the sound design satisfying. Bell tinkles and rings, pops, clicks, piano music, and ambient sounds like grass rustling make this a joy to play in the moment. Approaching a dark but gorgeously rendered domicile in one of the later scenes and having foreboding music kick in sets the mood so perfectly that it pulls you deeper in.
Thomas Brush’s art, sound, and story shine bright, making me excited to see what he does next. Neversong is a perfect example of why the future of intelligent and original game design lies with the indie scene. As AAA studios increasingly pump out cookie-cutter busywork simulators, humane storytelling is in the hands of those like Brush’s Atmos Games.
Neversong certainly has downsides: some might find themselves wishing that it was a little longer, or the puzzles or boss fights more fleshed out, and even though the difficulty ramps up near the end, Neversong never provides much of a challenge. But, then, if it did, it wouldn’t have pulled me in so much as it did. It’s a lean machine, stripped of all unnecessary fat, and to the point in every facet. You won’t find hours upon hours of activities, but you will find a beautiful and poignant story, tight and responsive controls, and a fascinatingly sombre world.
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